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American media outlets recently reported that the Ministry of Education in Paraguay banned all curriculum promoting “gender ideology,” a catch-all term for anything addressing women’s rights, gender issues or LGBTQ people.
According to Sergio López, Program Officer of SOMOSGAY, Paraguay’s LGBTQ and HIV advocacy group, the ministry’s resolution was based on a lie started by a local bishop — and it’s just the opening move in a larger plan to remove the Minister of the Women’s Secretariat, the only pro-LGBTQ official in the national government.
The cultural climate surrounding anti-LGBTQ attitudes in Paraguay
At a press conference near the end of last month, Education Minister Enrique Riera told reporters that the Ministry had banned public schools from using or spreading materials on gender ideology, adding that he himself would burn such books if he ever found them in schools.
“We naturally respect different options,” Riera said, “but we’re not going to instill them in our public schools.”
To understand Riera’s remark, López says you have to understand two things: First, Paraguay is gearing up for its national elections, and both major political parties hold conservative views and openly attack LGBTQ people and any groups fighting for increased human rights.
(To get an idea of the country’s anti-LGBTQ political sentiment: During the last national election, a politician named Horacio Cartes said he would shoot himself in the testicles if his son ever married a man. That same month he was elected president.)
Second, evangelical and Catholic churches support politicians’ queerphobia, and the politicians support the churches’ anti-LGBTQ actions as well. To make matters worse, corporate funders help finance anti-LGBTQ politicians and religious organizations, hiding in the shadows while funding anti-LGBTQ campaigns throughout the country.
Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country, and although Pope Francis, the head of the worldwide Catholic Church, has preached slightly more acceptance towards LGBTQ people than his predecessors, López says the goodwill engendered towards the LGBTQ community after his 2015 visit to Paraguay has been eroded by local Catholic bishops who have continued to foment anti-LGBTQ sentiment in his absence.
The campaign of misinformation surrounding gender ideology
The Education Minister’s recent banning of school materials promoting gender ideology, López says, was started by a local bishop in the capital city of Asunción who is known for regularly spreading anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories.
In several WhatsApp chat groups intended for parents of children in extra-curricular activities at private parochial schools, the bishop spread messages and a video claiming that he knew of a gay teacher spreading materials on how to be gay and how to pleasure their own bodies.
The materials didn’t exist, of course, but it followed a larger conservative narrative of LGBTQ indoctrination of children and mirrored prior conservative attacks on groups like SOMOSGAY that had been falsely accused in the past of distributing such materials in schools.
López sees the bishop’s move as strategic on several fronts. Foremost, its rhetoric mirrors ongoing regional campaigns occurring across Central and South America to roll back LGBTQ rights in Argentina and Brazil while confusing the general population about basic LGBTQ discussions.
For example, if bishops and politicians make statements like, “So-called human rights activists are getting into our children’s heads and classrooms to teach them how to behave and turn them into feminists, thereby destroying the traditional family,” then religious people who believe in equality and dignity for all might start feeling unclear on how to square their support for human rights with their religious beliefs.
In this case, the bishop’s comments served as a way to foment the anger of affluent, religious parents who later joined anti-LGBTQ religious leaders for a four-hour protest in front of Paraguay’s National Congress.
The real goal of Paraguay’s anti-LGBTQ forces
Now that the education minister has made a statement banning materials on gender ideology — materials which didn’t really exist in the first place, López adds — he says the immediate effect has been two-fold.
First, it has emboldened others to make similar statements against LGBTQ people and allies; statements that shape public thinking about whom to fear and discriminate against. Since the education minister’s resolution, conservative politicians have reportedly jumped on the bandwagon against gender ideology as a unifying message in the upcoming elections.
Second, López says SOMOSGAY has been contacted by teachers whose colleagues and supervisors have advised them against making any statements in support of human rights or LGBTQ and female equality, lest they be seen as gender ideology.
Since these teachers now fear termination, docked pay or upsetting local parents, religious organizations or conservative groups, the bishop and education minister have effectively silenced voices for equality in schools.
However, as we noted above, López suspects the larger goal is actually to get rid of the Minister of the Women’s Secretariat, a governmental position the official role of which involves supporting reforms for improving women’s rights and the work of which overlaps with advocating for LGBTQ civil rights.
Since Paraguay and large swaths of South America lack any legal protections against LGBTQ discrimination, López says, the Minister of the Women’s Secretariat is the only apparatus that women and LGBTQ people have for holding their government accountable. It is the only office that can help safeguard even a minimum of human rights for gender and sexual minorities.
If Paraguay continues to roll back women’s and LGBTQ rights, López says, it will have other widespread repercussions.
For instance, Paraguay also has high rates of femicides, teenage pregnancies, unpunished murders of transgender women and so-called “ex-gay” reparative therapy clinics used to torture gay men and lesbian women. All of these would likely increase under a conservative and religiously empowered government that see feminism and LGBTQ rights as social diseases and immoral ideologies to be eliminated.
How LGBTQ allies can help Paraguay
While López and his organization continue to raise awareness within Paraguay’s borders, he says people living outside of South America tend to view the continent as LGBTQ-friendly because of countries like Brazil and Argentina. But he wants people to remember that anti-LGBTQ sentiment (and its consequences) remains widespread and under-reported.
He continues, “Paraguay, as the small country that it is, tends to get lost a lot, but in the last couple of years, both because of increased ways of communicating worldwide and with more information made widely available about the critical stage of human rights in the country, we feel more support and attention is gained for our cause. The LGBTQ community is a global family, so we remain in global solidarity for our communities, families and overall LGBTQ brothers and sisters around the world.”
Featured image by Madzia71 via iStock